Ah, adventure. Adventure is just 95 percent discomfort and 5 percent sheer terror. Of course, I learned this the hard way as I plummeted down the El Camino de la Muerte, or the Death Road, on a rickety mountain bike on which I’d been traveling through Bolivia.
The “World’s Most Dangerous Road” consists of 43 miles (70 km) of dirt and rock heading north from La Paz, the world’s highest capitol (altitude 12,000 feet or 3,660 m), to Coroico, a beautiful cloud forest town at the rim of the Amazon basin. Its catchy nickname is due to the 26 vehicles that fall off the road per year. About 100 people annually lose their lives here.
The only road that exists to get to the Amazon from La Paz, it is carved into the sides of a canyon. It can have vertical drops for 1,600 feet (about 0.5 km), and it had no guardrails.
Consequently, most Bolivians take the time to pray before their descent. After all, it could be their last.
I joined Joel, an American bicyclist, and Rich, an Englishman, on our white-knuckled descent. As we sped down the canyon, I watched the scenery magically change before my eyes. High, frigid, mountain tops transformed into misty, cloud forests. Enormous waterfalls fell on us from high cliffs amongst the clouds. A giant condor took off in front of my eyes. Strange birds swarmed like fish above our heads. It was akin to entering a lost world, but despite the attractions, I had to stay focused on the road.
Since this was the only road, it had plenty of traffic. On the way to La Paz were potential statistics: buses, camiones and enormous cargo trucks ferrying supplies to the villages of the cloud forests and the Amazon. Any time two vehicles encountered each other, one would back up until there was a section with scarcely enough space for two and then one would pass.
I was entranced by these vehicular rituals! The tires of the vehicles lay right at the edge of their doom. I stared as dirt and pebbles started falling into the abyss. Would this one be another statistic? There was nothing we could possibly do, for we were on the other side of the canyon! Yet they passed through just fine. Still, we could have been the statistic. A few errant mountain bikers — three per year on average —were also lost from a missed turn.
Six hours later and covered in mud, we hit the bottom of the descent. We’d made it, and we survived! But it wasn’t over yet. During the tough 1.8 miles (3 km) ascent to Coroico, I ran into trouble. I couldn’t shift! My crank had bent out of shape during the descent.
After a lot creative language, I decided to walk up the mountain and make the best out of a bad situation. I finally crawled onto the cobbled streets of Coroico at sunset. As I rested in a café with a hot pizza, I realized that adventure truly is worth it, just as long as you’re alive to have a good meal in the end.
If You Go
Bolivia Tourism Office